Sat, July 13

In the past 11 years, the attrition rate of rural teachers in China has reached nearly 40%.

Recently, multiple regions have reported incidents of breach of contract by publicly funded teacher training students. The Education Bureau of Lufeng, Guangdong, released a list of breaches, including five undergraduate students who graduated in June this year and failed to fulfill their obligations. The Leizhou Education Bureau also issued a report, stating that four master’s graduates did not fulfill their commitments. The Education Bureaus of Fujian and Putian also issued several decisions on handling breaches by teacher training students. Some of these publicly funded teacher training students are directly under the supervision of government departments, while others are managed directly by provincial governments. Currently, 28 provinces across the country implement similar policies, providing free education and subsidies, with the promise of official positions and posts upon graduation. In this era of scarce official positions, this is undoubtedly a great opportunity. However, there are no free lunches, as graduates are required to return to their hometowns to work in designated positions for six years. For example, the policy enacted by Guangdong in 2020 stipulates that graduates must work in primary and secondary schools in the eastern, western, and northern regions of the province. It is not easy to stay in bustling cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen. For other undergraduate publicly funded teacher training students, they are not allowed to take the full-time postgraduate entrance exam during the designated service period. In this era where everyone is pursuing postgraduate studies, the difficulty of taking the exam again after six years of graduation is even greater, which also means losing another potential path.

The situation reported in Guangdong Province this time has a special feature, as all the defaulters are postgraduate students. This is because Guangdong is the first province in the country to implement the system of publicly funded master’s education, and the subsidy standards for postgraduates are relatively high. Each postgraduate student can enjoy a subsidy of 30,000 yuan for tuition and accommodation fees each year, calculated on a ten-month basis, they can also receive a monthly allowance of 800 yuan. What are the consequences for public-funded normal students if they default? If they are unwilling to fulfill the 6-year service period, they will need to refund the tuition and accommodation fees for 4 years, and pay a penalty of 30% to 50% as compensation. The regulations in Guangzhou are the strictest, with default records being recorded in personal files, and postgraduate students who default will have to pay 100,000 yuan. If they wish to pursue a teaching career, they can only choose to teach in private schools. Some students have expressed that in the future, they may no longer choose to take the postgraduate entrance exam or opt for publicly funded education. In contrast, other regions have relatively lenient measures for undergraduate defaulters, such as Putian and Ningde in Fujian, as well as Shandong, where only a penalty payment is required. The important question is: what makes them willing to bear the pressure of paying tens of thousands of yuan, risking being recorded in their personal files, having their names published, and even choosing to default.

There are two groups of people with the highest probability of defaulting. Firstly, graduates from prestigious universities, according to a research paper from the Guangdong Institute of Education Research in 2021, out of 30 reported cases of defaulting master’s graduates, 28 of them graduated from Hunan Normal University. Secondly, students assigned to remote towns and counties, such as defaulting students in Lufeng. Some of these students are assigned to top-ranked high schools in county towns, while others go to vocational high schools outside the city. These students often indulge in playing on their phones and sleeping, lacking self-motivation. Spending six years in such an environment may lead to personal abandonment. Additionally, due to poor conditions such as lack of separate dormitories, private bathrooms, and water heaters, students gradually wear down over time and are unwilling to live a life with no end in sight. When graduates from prestigious universities are assigned to remote schools, there is a huge gap between reality and expectations. I believe that the punishment for these default behaviors is too lenient, and the cost of defaulting is too low. For example, if a student on a government scholarship has a high-paying job waiting for them and a bright future in the civil service, they may risk paying a few thousand yuan in default fees to secure a spot for themselves. This behavior is driven by seeking personal gain, enjoying benefits such as free tuition and civil service positions, but failing to fulfill their commitments.

A paper from Guangdong mentioned a data point that among the 234 graduates of the 2021 cohort of publicly funded directed education master’s students, only 141 fulfilled their teaching obligations, accounting for a mere 62.26%. For students who have worked hard for years to obtain a teaching qualification and position, but ultimately cannot achieve their goals, it is undoubtedly heartbreaking. Publicly funded students only need to spend tens of thousands of yuan, taking a step forward is like reaching for the stars, and even stepping back provides a secure and decent fallback. Some people argue that many who breach contracts after graduating from undergraduate programs do so because they discovered during their university years that they had no interest in teaching and nurturing others, nor did they have any expectations. Thinking back to when they filled out their college applications at 18, they simply did not understand what it meant. Coming to a big city, meeting various classmates, over the years, their values and worldviews have been reshaped, and they are determined not to live a stagnant life. Therefore, I believe that the institutions responsible for helping students fill out their college applications are not suitable for everyone. Spending a large amount of money, just a few tens of minutes, one or two days, and the fate of the next few decades is arranged by parents and experienced teachers. Who cares about the children’s own thoughts? You are too young, what do you know? They don’t understand. After four years of university, they will understand.

The original purpose of the system of providing free education to students from rural areas was to promote educational equity between urban and rural areas. However, surveys have shown that out of over 100 graduates from rural backgrounds, none of them are willing to work in rural areas in the future. While one’s hometown can be a place of fond memories, it should not limit an individual’s future development. The reasons why these students who received free education choose to leave vary: some do so because the cost of breaching the contract is low, some because their career plans change as they grow older, and others because there is a significant gap between reality and their expectations.

Fundamentally, this reflects a phenomenon where teachers tend to choose to work in urban areas to seek advantages and avoid disadvantages, against the backdrop of widening disparities between urban and rural areas. We tend to focus excessively on urban school districts, various high-end study tours, the beautiful handicrafts of urban children, and provincial-level tutoring classes, while overlooking the following data: from 2012 to 2021, the total number of primary schools in towns and districts decreased by 4754, while the total number of rural primary schools decreased by 73061, which is 15 times more than the decrease in town and district primary schools.

At the same time, the source of students from rural areas continues to decrease and shrink. Data shows that the rural population has decreased by 160 million over the past 10 years. With the increase in the urban population, the number of left-behind children is decreasing, especially among parents born in the 1980s and 1990s. Whether they settle in the city or work outside, they tend to bring their children with them. Even if they cannot bring their children, they will leave behind a labor force to take care of them at home.

Between 2016 and 2020, the number of left-behind children in primary and secondary schools on campus decreased from 17.26 million to 12.89 million. With the decrease in student population, school mergers have become more common, leading to an increasingly serious problem of teacher turnover. Unstable salaries have also led to the remaining rural students choosing to study in urban areas, further reducing the student population in schools, creating a vicious cycle. In 2016, East China Normal University released a survey report on the situation in Yunnan, showing that nearly 80% of rural teachers in Yunnan had mobility issues, including transfers, resignations, and a willingness to change careers. Among them, teachers under the age of 30 had the strongest desire to transfer or change careers. By 2021, the university released another report based on field visits and 5342 questionnaire surveys, categorizing the willingness to resign into ten levels. It was found that the proportion of teachers with a willingness to transfer or change careers continuously, at levels 9-10, reached 29.8%, an increase of 5.7% from 24.1% in 2016. The resignation intention of this group of teachers is very strong.

I have once again looked up the number of rural teachers. According to the 2013 China Education Statistical Yearbook, the total number of rural teachers in the country decreased from 4.7295 million in 2010 to 3.3045 million in 2013, with a loss rate of 30%. By 2021, the number of rural teachers had further decreased to 2.9 million. Data for the year 2022 is not yet available. In other words, over the span of 11 years, whether due to teachers changing professions or being transferred, the loss rate of rural teachers has now reached nearly 40%. When almost all young teachers in a school are unwilling to stay permanently, various situations arise, such as teachers taking on multiple roles, teaching subjects like math, physical education, music, and English, while also handling administrative, logistical, and teaching duties. Some people try to use connections to transfer to urban areas through exams; others give up on the education industry and switch careers, preferring to not be teachers rather than stay in rural areas. For those who are unable to leave and lack the courage to change their lives, they choose to live a plain life and go with the flow.

An article in the journal “Contemporary Teacher Education” summarized that the current rural teachers are facing neglect in terms of their knowledge education function, a reduction in their caring function, a shift in their moral education function towards merely imparting knowledge rather than nurturing talent, and a decline in their nurturing function. Against the backdrop of continuous urban migration, retaining young people who have experienced the prosperity of big cities in rural areas is a challenging issue that goes against human nature and prevailing trends. The only way to address this challenge is to continuously increase support for rural education. Currently, there has been some financial bias and various compensation policies in place, which have been receiving significant attention in recent years and will not be reiterated here. Apart from conventional measures, what other details need attention? For example, increasing the cost of breach of contract for students on government scholarships to prevent economic speculators from obtaining dual benefits with minimal investment. The physical and environmental conditions of rural schools also need to be gradually improved; facilities such as dormitory air conditioning and natural gas may not be essential, but the cleanliness of equipment like water heaters in bathrooms is crucial. Reducing the workload of teachers outside of teaching, such as collecting payments for new rural cooperative medical care, assisting with student loans, participating in quiz competitions, canvassing for votes, or seeking likes on social media, is important. These activities, rather than retaining teachers, may actually lead to their departure. For promotions and professional titles, preference should be given to rural teachers. Housing benefits in cities, talent housing, and public rental housing should be awarded to teachers with good reputations and long working hours. Additionally, many places are currently recruiting retired teachers, with the National Scholarship Program planning to send 6,000 teachers to key support counties and deeply impoverished areas nationwide by 2023. Recently, nine Chinese government departments jointly developed the “My Hometown, My Construction” plan, which includes a thought-provoking suggestion to encourage and guide retired teachers, doctors, and others to settle in rural areas, allowing rural collective economic organizations to explore mechanisms for talent inclusion. “Leaving home when young, returning when old,” and “a falling leaf returns to its roots” – making use of one’s remaining energy in their hometown can be considered a temporary solution.